What do we look for in a dog?
Updated: Sep 5
Dogs are known as man's best friend. Domesticated some 20,000 years ago, their evolution has become intertwined with our own. Humans have been breeding dogs for centuries, trying to mold them into our perfect vision of a dog (while dogs have been doing the same to us). While some of these efforts have led to some unfortunate outcomes (such as many pugs having breathing problems due to their compact faces), many of these efforts have led to dogs being suited for herding, hunting, or just lounging with their owner. So the question is, what type of dog are currently we looking for?
The American Kennel Club tracks breed popularity year to year, providing a good sample of how different breeds, and characteristics associated across breeds, are being selected by us humans today. The AKC has online records going back to 2013 of almost 200 different dog breeds which we will use. We will be evaluating their popularity against a number of characteristics such as size (height and weight) and dog breed group.
First off, What are the top 10 dogs over the last 7 years?
Labrador Retriever (avg rank 1)
German Shepherd Dog (avg rank 2.1)
Golden Retriever (avg rank 3.1)
Bulldogs (avg rank 4.6)
Beagles (avg rank 5.6)
French Bulldogs (avg rank 5.8)
Poodles (avg rank 7)
Rottweilers (avg rank 8.5)
Yorkshire Terriers (avg rank 9)
German Shorthaired Pointers (avg rank 10.5)
The average ranks tell a story of just how little the most popular dogs have shifted over the last 7 years. Only 2 breeds not listed cracked the top 10 at any point in the 7-year span (Boxers and Daschunds). Until this past year, the top 3 most popular breeds did not change at all.
Even on a year-to-year basis, most breeds don't change their ranking (with a mean change in ranking of -1 spots due to new breeds being added). 77% of yearly changes are less than 10 slots from their ranking the previous year. If we limit this to the 25 most popular breeds each year, the change shrinks even more, with no breed changing by more than 4 spots in a single year! That said, there are a couple of interesting points.
Violin plot of how much each breed's popularity changed year to year
French Bulldog the new Yorkshire Terrier
The main interesting trend in the top 10 over the 7-year span is the difference between the French Bulldog vs Yorkshire Terrier. Britain's favorite son, erm terrier, is being overtaken by a french invader. Both are on the shorted end of dogs with the french bulldog is a little bigger and friendlier on average. If the trend continues, we may see Yorkshire terriers continue to drop while the French Bulldog may become the go to dog.
So that raises the question:
Which breed's ranking changed the most in a single year?
Examples of Boerboel (center), Coton de Tulear (middle), and Spanish Water Dog (right)
Interestingly, all three of the biggest changes came between 2013 and 2014. Boerboels (126th to 64th) improved 62 spots, while Coton de Tulears (85th to 35th) and Spanish Water Dogs (167th to 113th) improved 54 spots each. Each is a really different dog so I am not sure what the change says about our overall preferences. When we look at the reverse, the drops are more gentle with the largest drop being only 22 spots (Glen of Imaal Terriers in 2016, Swedish Vallhunds in 2018, and Tibetan Mastiffs in 2017).
Which breed has gained the most popularity over the last 7 years?
Examples of Boykin Spaniel (left), Beauceron (middle), and Russell Terrier (right)
The gains over the 7-year span are more gentle than the one-year jumps, with Boykin Spaniels (121st to 87th) improving 34 spots, Beaucerons (152nd to 121st) improving 30 spots, and Russell Terriers (102nd to 72nd) improving 30 spots. in contrast, Coonhounds (both treeing walker coonhounds and American English coonhounds) and Irish Water Spaniels have fallen the most, dropping 52, 39, and 33 spots respectively. As with the one-year jumps, I am not sure this says anything about dog preferences but is always interesting to note.
Ok, enough of the specific dogs, what are the trends that we can look at?
Change in breed group preference
Change in Popularity of Different Breed Groups.
Error bars represent 95% confidence intervals.
We can see that the hound and toy groups of dogs have lost the most popularity over the last 7 years. Interestingly, no group has gained popularity on average over the last 7 years (though the herding group is the closest). This is likely due to the number of breeds that are listed by AKC, with 19 breeds being added to the list over the 7 years. Add to that how small the average changes are (no change for the herding group, dropping 10 spots for the hound group and it is hard for any breed group to make significant gains. Still if I had to guess I'd expect more herding and sporting dogs going forward.
How do height and weight influence popularity
We can take the average height and weight of each breed along with their popularity and create a popularity weighted heat map as below
Weighted heat map of height and weight of the different dog breeds
We can clearly se a relationship between height and weight (no tall light dogs or short heavy dogs). This isn't that surprising, but still pretty impressive how consistent this is. It seems there are 2 hot spots, specifically 15 inches and 25 pounds (such as the cocker spaniel) or around 24 inches and 60 pounds (such as the retrievers).
What about Temperament?
The AKC lists 3 temperament traits for each breed, while generally positive, they are terms like curious, playful, or energetic. Maybe the dog we are looking for has a certain temperament?
Change in popularity of different temperaments.
Error bars represent 95% confidence intervals
As with breed group, no temperament is really gaining popularity, though there are some like fearless, happy, and courageous that are losing popularity. That being said, the fact that Calm and Gentle are the top 2 certainly suggests a certain preference for dogs that are less energetic. Similarly seeing fearless, courageous, and spirited also suggests that the role of dogs is changing, with less of a need for guard dogs of various types.
The biggest limitation here is that the AKC only tracks pure breeds and even then only the breeds it recognizes. While this is useful, this does mean that many of the dogs owned by Americans are not counted. If anyone has a better dataset that would include mixed breeds, please do pass it along!
In conclusion, the biggest finding is just how little our preferences have changed over the last 7 years. Even among the dog breeds whose popularity has changed, there isn't arent many clear patterns of the types of dogs people are looking for. That being said, it seems the perfect dog today would be a Herding Dog, around 24 inches tall and 50 pounds, that is calm and gentle. The closest pure breed may just be an Old English Sheepdog (currently ranked 68th in popularity, up from 78th back in 2013).
Old English Sheepdog bounding forward
All code related to this post is available on my github.